On June 5, 2005, a young woman’s dog pooped onboard the Metropolitan Subway, Line 2, near Ahyun Station, Seoul, South Korea.
She was embarrassed and was offered a tissue by a fellow passenger. She cleaned her dog with it but was chastised by passengers later for refusing to do the same for the mess on the floor – before hastily disembarking.
By then, a passenger named Miss Kim had taken her photo with a mobilephone and soon the posting went viral online.
The meme “dog poop girl”, “dog s**t girl” or 개똥녀 (gae-ttong-nyue) took a life of its own. An online all-points bulletin alert and the firestorm of criticism resulted in identification of her, her relatives, her place of work and apparently her eventually quitting.
As documented by Jonathan Zittrain in ‘The Future of the Internet’: “The summed outrage of many unrelated people viewing a disembodied video may be disproportionate to whatever social norm or law is violated within that video. Lives can be ruined after momentary wrongs, even if merely misdemeanors.”
The case brings to mind several other related incidents well-documented by popular sites such as Know Your Meme and Wikipedia including: Bus Uncle (Hong Kong), Christopher Lao (Philippines), Anton Casey (Singapore) and Sharifah Zohra Jabeen (Listen, listen, listen) (Malaysia).
Each case differs in the degree of the wrong-doing but the backlash of harassment, hate vitriol, ridiculing parodies, even death threats online were common to all.
In a hyper-cammed, super-amped Internet world, an online mob can quickly become judge, jury and executioner. What you say or do in a public space, online or otherwise, can and will be used against you.
Bus Uncle’s infamy may have even resulted in him being beaten up by masked men, Christopher Lao suffered a mental breakdown, Anton Casey lost his job and fled the country, and Sharifah Zohra says she feared for the safety of her family and children.
By all accounts, none of the actions of the five individuals that became online media targets are defensible.
Dog poop girl’s refusal to clean up, Bus Uncle’s profanity-laced tirade, Christopher Lao’s “whiny, obnoxious” interview, Anton Casey’s condescending tweets and Sharifah Zohra’s disparaging inanities all made us uncomfortable when measured against mature, civil society norms.
We were angry, mad even. But, sadly, their bad behaviours incensed some of us enough to get on moral high-horses and bombard them with derision and death threats – reflecting our own bad behaviours online. Yes they were all wrong and deserved a reprimand but who died and made some of us infallible gods online? (I shudder to think of the early part of my 50 years of living if a particular moment had been filmed, documented and posted online. How would I have reacted if an intensely-scrutinized single mistake became the defining moment of my entire character, career or life? How would you? )
As a young journalist, I was always worried of writing a story that would result in sources or the subjects of the story losing their rice bowls — or even their lives. Was the story more important than the resulting fallout? Would the uncertified engineers I pointed out lose their jobs? Would the undocumented immigrants I reported on be forced to return to the destitution of their home country? Would the passerby “hero” who came to the rescue of the family in a murder case be later victimized by the assailants? I was never able to reconcile that part of my job by the cliched refrain “I’m just doing my job.”
As media professionals and a community, our actions or inaction can result in a profound impact on society at large. The cliché is worth repeating: freedom of expression does come with great responsibility. If we are to mature as a society, then we have an obligation to speak up and point out what’s right, and what’s wrong — online as well as offline. We already live in both worlds, whether we like it or not.
In my old age, as a media trainer, I try to provoke my participants into embracing all things Internet. But also, I encourage them to think of the long term implications of everything they do online that is archived in that cloud of posterity. Every post, every comment, every tweet, every photo and every video defines who you are to some future Internet archivist.
The Internet is a messy space and we have a responsibility, nay, an obligation, to bring some level of maturity of discourse in it. Just like the rest of the world. Allowing only the trolls and anonymously nasty to fill this precious resource with hate would be sad.
Everyone of us relishes our privacy to some extent, but that shouldn’t be the one thing that holds you back from sharing all the value you can add to the conversation. In fact, you should be in it because you care enough to effect the changes you want to see online.
If this knowledge freezes you, makes you stick your head in the sand and stay offline from any social network, then you have chosen to disengage with the very society you are a part of. And that’s a true loss for everyone.
(The caveat: I know for some it can be hard. A woman who was the victim of an abusive marriage told me she could never go online for fear her ex would trace her every move. “Be yourself” is easy to say — but being yourself in a hyper-documented, super-shareable world calls for real gonads for some. )
So, did the five “victims” survive their 15 minutes of online infamy? Bus Uncle apparently asked to be paid for media interviews and tried to organize a “Bus Uncle Rave” which never happened. No word on Dog Poop Girl, Anton Casey or the Listen, Listen, Listen lady, who are quietly fading away, perhaps to their own relief, into the obscurity they came from.
Christopher Lao, in a 2012 report, finally returned to university to complete his Bar exam, become a lawyer and an advocate against cyberbullying.
In the interview he says:
“The level of bullying that I experienced can affect anyone’s confidence. I was always crying every day and I feared that I could not move on and could not fulfill my duties as a parent, even.”
Lao says his perspective changed, however, when he started to “detach” himself from material comforts and stopped giving excessive value to his reputation. “Reputation is very limiting because it boxes us. We are scared of failure because (of this). I was no longer afraid of failure…I was done with reputation, I was done with that,” said Lao, who went under medication due to the cyber-bullying he endured.
“I asked myself, ‘Why am I not gonna take this Bar? Only because people might again derive joy from my potential failure?’ I’m done with that. They’ve said whatever they want. I just said, ‘It’s time to do things that will make my loved ones proud, myself proud, the Lord proud. I figured that I was able to wake up every day because I felt that I was worth something.”